Welcome back! In Part 1, I discussed four lessons I learned on how to assemble bicycle touring gear for cheap. So now that you’ve outfitted yourself with affordable gear, how do you keep costs down when you’re on the road?
In keeping with the theme, here is another three lessons I learned while riding 2,000 miles across the United States. This guide is directed towards someone who is planning to ride across the USA, since I don’t have any experience with the laws of other foreign countries. However, much of the advice present here can be applied to different parts of the world.
Plan Your Route
This is the most important rule by far. Unless you’re looking to ramble, you have to plan your route along a path that allows you to pitch a tent as much as possible, because hospitality services are the largest expense you’re going to encounter. Some routes may be very scenic, but go through multiple urban areas where camping could be dangerous or simply not available. Others might go through large stretches of open country, but the roads are flanked by barbed-wire fences with no place to camp. Only by researching routes beforehand can you accurately assess factors such as these.
One of the easiest ways to plan your route is by simply following one or more of the Adventure Cycling Association’s Adventure Routes. These are mapped routes that are planned explicitly with bicyclists in mind, and go through or near many places that are friendly to overnight camping with a bike. You can pay about $15 for a detailed guide of your chosen route that displays camping spots, bike shops, alternate, routes, etc. You could also just take a look at their overview map and plan your route yourself, available here: Adventure Cycling Routes
But let’s say the destination you want to go to isn’t along one of these routes, or you live in a place that isn’t anywhere near one of them. Then it’s time to plan your own route. For whatever area you’re planning on riding through, go into Google Maps (or your preferred map service) and search for campgrounds, rest stops, local parks, wilderness areas, state parks, and small towns. Once you have a map of these locations, begin connecting roads that hit as many of these as possible on the way to your destination. After that is complete, then you must find out their availability.
- Campgrounds: Call ahead and ask about rates and any possible discounts for bicyclists. If it’s a busy season, find out if you need a reservation or not.
- Rest Stops: Look up the specific state laws for sleeping overnight at rest stops. Most of them allow you to sleep overnight, but others are explicitly forbidden. However, as a bicyclist, you’re most likely going to get a bit of leniency from police officers even if you’re sleeping in a restricted area.
- Local parks: If you see a park that appears to be more than a few acres in size, call that town’s parks and recreation department and ask about camping accommodations, and clearly state you are a cross-country bicyclist. Whenever camping is allowed at parks like these, a lot of the time Google Maps won’t display these as possible campgrounds, so your best bet is to ask the organizations who own them.
- State Parks: The overwhelming majority of these have campgrounds, although they can be a bit expensive the farther you travel east of the Mississippi River. However, many times the price is worth it, since you don’t have to deal with the sound of semi-trucks roaring down the highway at night, and are much safer overall.
- Small towns: In Google Maps, a large amount of small towns haven’t been mapped by the software yet. There could be any number of possible camp spots in the town that you simply won’t know until you get there. And most of the time, you can ask the locals for a camp spot, which I will cover later.
- Motels: Try to avoid staying at these no more than once or twice a week, since even the cheapest ones start at $45 per night. But if you have no other choice, always call ahead to make a reservation.
About “Stealth” Camping: Of the bicyclists I’ve talked to and researched online, many of them recommend camping in a stealthy place where nobody knows you’re there, in order to not have to pay for accommodation. I don’t agree with this, except in specific circumstances, which I will talk about later. Firstly, you are trespassing on someone else’s property. There isn’t a stretch of land along any road in the United States that isn’t owned by someone. If you were ever to be discovered by someone, you are at the mercy of their own discretion not to press charges, or possibly even injure you. Speaking realistically, however, if you hide correctly, the chances of being discovered are very low, and the chances of being punished once discovered are lower (trust me I’ve done this before), but you can’t avoid the fact that you are trespassing against someone. If they decide they don’t like you, you will be in a world of trouble for your actions, and your tour will effectively end at that point.
Secondly, no matter how well you hide and how low the chances of being caught are, you will never be able to shake a small amount of anxiety away. Anything that sounds like a nearby footstep will give you cause for alarm, and until you are back on the road, you will be hiding from sight and cowering from other people like a prey animal. It’s not a healthy mindset to have.
What about the exceptions, though? I would say, if you’re traveling along a highway in the middle of nowhere, and there’s ample room on either side of the road for a tent that’s out of sight, then it’s probably okay to camp out there. Yes, it’s either private property or restricted public land, but in this case, given your relative location, anyone who could stumble upon you would most likely understand what you’re doing and not mind your presence (as long as you don’t litter). However, why camp there in the first place? Why not just continue to the nearest small town and camp without worry or having to hide?
Ask Around for Shelter
Finding a place to sleep is always the most difficult part of touring, besides the actual pedaling of course. When you’ve planned your route and you invariably end a number of your days in small towns that don’t have any obvious places to camp, what do you do? Ask around!
Go to gas stations and ask the clerks if they know any places in or near the town that you can camp. They (usually) live nearby, and deal with travelers often, so they might know a thing or two about the town that the maps don’t. Make sure to speak somewhat loudly while asking the clerks, because a local might overhear your conversation and offer a place if they have one. I had that happen to me twice on my trip, so it could happen to you on yours.
If you don’t get any leads at the gas stations, your next best bet are the local churches. If you see one that it sitting on a decent-sized plot of land, ask if you could pitch your tent on their property for the night. Most of the time it won’t be Sunday, so keep your phone charged and use it to call the owners of the church in the likely event that no one is there. To date, I’ve never had a church refuse me, so as long as you are polite and humble, you should be fine. And even if the church doesn’t have any land, one or more of the members might allow you to camp on their own property if you’re in need. Happened to me a few times as well!
Regardless, if you found your camping spot by talking to someone over the phone or from local hearsay, always make sure to call the local police and notify them of your presence. The last thing you want is a nosy neighbor calling the cops on a suspicious tent in the park, or a patrol officer waking you up in the middle of the night to explain to him what you’re doing. As long as you’re forthright in your dealings with the law, you shouldn’t ever run into trouble.
Eat Cheap, But Stay Healthy
This one seems like a no-brainer, but food management while traveling is as much of a learned skill as cooking is. You can’t carry perishables, you can’t carry heavy food, you need as many calories as possible, and you need to fit everything in a small bag in your pack. Those criteria are going to restrict your choices significantly, and it can be very difficult to learn how to function within those restrictions. It can even be downright miserable if you don’t know how to maximize your choices. So, how you do keep food costs low while getting what you need to survive?
Follow this rule! 1 dollar for carbs, 2 dollars for fats, 2 dollars for protein. For every $5 you spend, divide your money as such. The reason is that not only will this make your money go as far as it can, it also maximizes the available space you have in your pack for food, a quality I call the volume-to-calorie ratio. For example, a cubic inch of fatty food is going to have almost twice the calories of a cubic inch of a carb-heavy food. Carb-heavy foods (like noodles, bread, basically anything made from grains) are the cheapest to buy and have a good ratio. Fat-heavy food (like fatty meats, nuts, and oils) are more expensive but also have the best ratio. Protein-heavy foods (like tuna and lean meats) are the most expensive and have the worst ratio. Following this $5 rule, you could go into the dollar store and purchase the following (not including taxes):
- 1 box of generic-brand Poptarts (1200 calories)
- 1 12oz jar of peanut butter (2200 calories)
- 2 packets of generic-brand tuna (200 calories)
Now, you could certainly eat that every day and suffer, but you need to have some variation in your diet. So look for items that can roughly fit within the ratio guidelines, and hopefully require minimal cooking. These could include trail mix, nuts, ramen noodles, instant mashed potatoes, instant rice, canned chicken, raw flour, etc. Sometimes, however, you’re going to get tired of eating the same stuff every day, so what should you do when you get a craving for something hot and prepared?
McDonald’s is your friend! The Dollar Menu simply can’t be beat by anything you’re commonly going to encounter. One of their staples, the humble McChicken, has 360 calories, 14g of protein, 40g of carbs, and 16g of fat, all for one dollar. Granted, it pales in comparison to what you can get at a dollar store, but the McChicken is hot, it’s tasty, you don’t have to carry it, you don’t have to make it, and most importantly, you can eat it inside a building with air conditioning and free Wi-Fi. Plus, you can fill up your water bottles at the soda fountain, so the value you get from your one dollar still goes pretty far. Just don’t eat there too often!
Armed with the knowledge contained in these two articles, you, as a thrifty bicyclist aspiring to ride across the county, should be able to make informed decisions to reduce your costs as much as possible. Whether it’s 500 or 5,000 miles, if you apply these seven lessons to your mindset and your planning, you should be able to ride with your budget being worry-free. The frugal-minded traveler might not tour in luxury or comfort, but they are touring, and that’s what counts. No matter what your income is like, if you’re willing to make the correct sacrifices, you can achieve your dreams of bicycle travel. Thank you for reading, and I hope these two articles help you on your way. If there’s any additional tips you can think of, post them in the comments below!